Considering the Benefits of Fieldwork Websites
Before beginning fieldwork for my PhD dissertation, I followed a number of blogs that related to my subject of interest within the discipline of religious studies, Buddhism. These were mostly written by non-academics who wanted an audience for their thoughts and practices involving Buddhism. I decided to join this community, adding more academic analysis and information by presenting my observations from fieldwork in Thailand’s meditation temples. So in August 2009 I launched my own blog, “Wandering Dhamma,” via WordPress. This title reflects the nature of my fieldwork within Buddhism in Thailand. I ‘wandered’ throughout Thailand locating the most popular international meditation centers, while learning meditation practices and the Buddha’s teachings (dhamma) at these sites. I practiced alongside my primary research subjects, the international meditators, or the foreigners who participate in these English language meditation retreats. My main objective was to understand how international meditation center teachers adapt the retreat program for their foreign visitors and to what extent this is based on a history of international engagement with Buddhism and Thailand. I examined the phenomenon of international meditation retreat centers in Thailand, focusing on the narrative experiences of international meditators, translations of their teachers and ways of learning and embodying meditation practice.
I chose to use WordPress to host my blog because it was free, easy to use, and I liked the simple yet elegant look of WordPress blogs. Because I was already an observer of this Buddhist blogging community, I knew I would have an audience. This was crucial in my motivation and desire to create a blog about my fieldwork. I wrote to the authors of blogs that I followed and requested they link to my site as I would link to theirs. I also linked my site to a Twitter account of the same name (@wanderingdhamma) so that I could reach a larger audience. Through Twitter I alerted followers of new postings on the blog. Knowing I had an audience encouraged me to continue posting and to blog as frequently as possible.
This platform was also particularly useful for the multi-sited fieldwork I was involved in. My ‘field’ was the most popular and well-known international meditation centers of Thailand. I visited over twenty sites for varying lengths of time and interviewed the teachers and coordinators at each site as well as dozens of participants, or international meditators. I talked with the meditators about their experiences and asked the teachers more pointed questions about how they translated and adapted the meditation retreat for their English-speaking guests. Due to the amount of travel, it was necessary to plan and research in advance about the site, teachers, and meditation methods. I would often write preparatory posts about the meditation method, lineage, teachers and site before attending the retreat. After finishing the retreat and interviews, I wrote a number of posts about my experience and ideas for how to frame my research. The content of my posts included basic information about each meditation temple and the retreat program offered there. I also incorporated the most relevant details from my interviews with meditation teachers and the structure of retreat, often comparing it with other retreats. Therefore I had much to write about before and after I attended a retreat each month.
Throughout my fieldwork, writing the “Wandering Dhamma” blog aided me in a number of ways. Making my fieldnotes into something more comprehensible on a monthly basis was very helpful in considering the structure and chapter outlines of my dissertation. Although it still took considerable time and effort after my fieldwork had ended, I had a basis for writing as I was essentially beginning to write my dissertation while I was researching. I wrote a series of posts offering background information on the lineages, methods, and the history of lay meditation in Thailand. This was useful in the opening chapters of my dissertation as well as for international meditators to understand the context of the meditation retreat program they were participating in. I did not use all of the information I blogged about in the dissertation and still have a wealth of ideas and themes to use for later articles and further pursuit. Without the limitations of a narrow dissertation topic, I wrote widely about my experiences, books related to meditation in Thailand, and global Buddhism.
In addition to starting the process of writing about my findings, I came into contact with many present and future international meditators. I handed out my card with the blog website to all of the international meditators that I encountered. Some of them followed my blog and added their comments about retreat temples in Thailand. The site became a place to engage in dialogue about meditation in Thailand. Although I posted all of my knowledge about meditation retreats in Thailand on ‘Wandering Dhamma,’ I often received emails asking me to point prospective travelers to a suitable retreat for them after listing a number of criteria. The characteristics of meditation retreats that were most desirable to foreign participants were interesting data to analyze, usually including a quiet, natural setting. I used some of this information to discuss the imaginaries of meditation in Thailand. In addition to interviewing these meditators, they also shared with me their own travel blogs. I used their informal writing in these formats as data about their experience they might not share in a formal interview setting.
Besides international meditators, also the monks, nuns, and lay meditation teachers appreciated my blog. They were happy that accurate information about their meditation temples was being disseminated through the Internet for a large audience. They were also glad that research was being conducted by a person who was practicing and participating in the meditation retreat. Through my interviews I was able to understand what they wanted to communicate to potential international meditators and became a conduit to bridge information between these two groups. A few meditation teachers read my posts and clarified some information, adding useful data. Therefore I could use the site to receive feedback from my participants and check my information.
As my dissertation research came to an end, I wanted a more permanent location for my site. I transitioned the blog into a website (wanderingdhamma.org) where I could continue to write my findings about meditation in Southeast Asia and engage in dialogue with potential subjects, without the limitations of a blogging host website. Although this new space is not free, I did not want the information I gathered to disappear. It is important to continually update a blog or it may seem as if the site has been abandoned. Creating my own website allows me the freedom to update the site with new information as I pursue new research or visit new meditation temples. As I am not constantly doing fieldwork anymore, I cannot post as often as I once did. This new site is a way to keep the information available and continue to maintain a platform for new research and updated information.
Through these numerous ways, maintaining a fieldwork website facilitated my research and dissertation writing. It was helpful that my scholarly interests fit within a pre-existing blogging community, so I had a built-in audience before beginning to write. I was able to amass a lot of data and gain research contacts through the site. Now that I have moved my research to my own website I have a platform for new research, my teaching, and a forum with which to continue to communicate with international meditators.
Image: Buddhist studies blog (photograph by author).
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